When I was a kid, I had a poster of “Starsky & Hutch” on my bedroom wall. There were a lot of things about the show that I thought were cool: maverick cops, Huggy Bear, that car. Yep, those were all pretty cool in the 1970’s. Like virtually every other once-popular TV show, “Starsky & Hutch” has now been adapted for the big screen. Movie versions of old TV shows have a spotty reputation at best. This one actually works pretty well because it has an undeniable fondness for the source material. Director/co-writer Todd Phillips (Old School) might have had the same poster on his bedroom wall. He remembers the show nicely, while still poking some good-natured fun at it.
Ben Stiller plays uptight cop David Starsky, a by-the-book guy dedicated to taking down even the pettiest of Bay City criminals. After burning through 12 partners in 4 years, he is paired with Ken “Hutch” Hutchinson (Owen Wilson), a laid-back type who doesn’t mind bending the occasional rule. Their alliance is uneasy at first, but eventually they learn to get along and even like one another. It’s a perfect case of one balancing out the other.
Their first case involves catching a drug kingpin named Reese Feldman (Vince Vaughn) who has perfected a special kind of cocaine that can’t be smelled by drug-sniffing dogs. Feldman has conceived a master plan for getting his drugs on the street. As Starsky and Hutch work their way closer to him, they encounter some people who are connected with the man, either directly or peripherally. Those people include a couple of comely cheerleaders (Carmen Electra and Amy Smart) and a convict known as Big Earl (Will Farrell), who takes an unusual shine to Hutch. Giving an occasional much-needed assist is a local informant named Huggy Bear (Snoop Dogg in an inspired piece of casting).
Starsky & Hutch works for a couple of very simple reasons: it is well-cast and it gets the approach just right. I think that in order to successfully do a big screen version of a TV show, you need to have some sort of take on it. For instance, Charlie’s Angels maximized the concept of “girl power” by having its three beautiful female stars perform all kinds of action. The Fugitive, meanwhile, took its premise very seriously and turned into a first-rate action flick. The worst entries in the genre (Leave It To Beaver, The Beverly Hillbillies) simply settled for trying to recreate the shows they were based upon, with no imagination or perspective.
This one has a very distinct take on the original show: it’s goofy but great. The film pokes some fun at the 70’s fashions (such as the way Starsky always fought crime in a sweater). It takes some jabs at the culture, the cars, and the morals of the decade. Starsky’s hair is a common target as well. However, it’s all done affectionately. There’s no cynicism or mean-spiritedness. Some of the other TV-to-movie adaptations have been bogged down by a hipper-than-thou attitude toward their own inspirations. Starsky & Hutch takes an appreciative approach to its satire.
Also, it is not content to just recycle jokes. There’s some real inventiveness to the humor here. You know that old movie cliché in which the hero is always trying to measure up to his late father, who was also a cop? Well in this movie, we learn that Starsky’s mother was a cop. That leads to some funny lines such as: “You’re mother would be ashamed of you right now!” I like the way the picture turns that cliché on its ear. Another big laugh comes near the end, when our heroes try to perform that oft-repeated movie stunt in which a car is jumped onto a boat. They way they argue and bicker about whether it can really be done is hilarious, as are the results.
There is something to be said for casting an actor to his/her strengths. In that sense, Stiller and Wilson are very well used. The actors, who have made several other films together, have opposite styles that compliment one another perfectly. Stiller is a master of flustered frustration, whereas Wilson radiates surfer dude cool. Their back-and-forth interactions make for great comedy, whether Wilson is presenting a threat to Stiller’s masculinity (as in Meet the Parents) or serving as a nemesis (as in Zoolander) or creating an uneasy partnership, as he does here. These are funny guys solo, but together they work a real magic.
The supporting players are just as good, especially Snoop Dogg. He is willing to make fun of his own persona. In one scene, Huggy Bear coaches Feldman on which golf club to use on a particular kind of grass. “You know a lot about golf,” Feldman says after successfully nailing the ball. Huggy replies, “I know a lot more about grass.” Like a lot of rappers, Snoop has a natural charisma that translates well to the big screen. Not all of his movies/roles have been great, but he’s fun to watch. This is one of his best roles to date.
I laughed a lot at Starsky & Hutch. I’m not sure that it would really make me want to go back and re-watch old episodes of the show, but that’s all right. The show was then, the movie is now. And the movie is good.
( out of four)
Starsky & Hutch is rated PG-13 for drug content, sexual situations, partial nudity, language and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.
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